In an article at Salon a few years back, writer Katy Read admitted something that raised some maternal eyebrows: She regrets having left a respectable job and steady paycheck to be an at-home mom to her two sons for ten years.
It’s not the quality time with her children she regrets, but the financial toll she’s now paying for it.
“The swing set moments when I would realize, watching the boys swoop back and forth, that someday these afternoons would seem to have rushed past in nanoseconds, and I would pause, mid-push, to savor the experience while it lasted… Now I lie awake at 3 a.m., terrified that as a result I am permanently financially screwed.”
In the hundreds of comments her column generated, we find some defense of the value of at-home parenting along with tirades against a sexist system that forces women to choose between work and family.
What very few people note, however, is that the cause of Read’s current financial strain is not really her years of at-home parenting. The cause of her crisis is her divorce.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of two teenagers must be in want of a steady paycheck and employer-sponsored health insurance.”
The notion that any parent can stay home full time with children is based upon the assumption that there are, and will continue to be, two supportive parents in the household, at least one of them earning a paycheck. Whether the mother works outside the home or not, having a traditional marriage at its foundation is every family’s best bet for happiness and prosperity.
Read’s story reminds me of Gaby Hinsliff, a different writer-mom who earned her own set of hundreds of comments a little over a year ago when she announced a surprising decision to leave her high-profile job as political editor at the Observer in order to stay home full time with her young son.
“I had it all,” she wrote at the time, “but I didn’t have a life.”
Read and Hinsliff might have come to opposing conclusions, but they each give voice to the same universal truth. The mothers of previous generations, many of whom abandoned home life in favor of careers, had a secret they kept from us: “Having it all” comes with a price. And it’s a price that some of us won’t be happy to pay.
The media’s notion of the “Mommy Wars,” where briefcase-wielding career women face off against stroller-pushing homemakers, is largely a fabricated stereotype. Some mothers work because they want to. Some mothers work because they have to. Especially in tough economic times, though, intact families will find all kinds of creative and cooperative ways to get the bills paid without sacrificing their children’s needs for hands-on parenting.
Are we working moms? Are we at-home moms? Or are we an unlabeled something in between?
I suppose that I am a working mom. Those words look odd to me on the page and feel foreign on my tongue, but they are true. I never in my lifetime planned to be a “working mom,” and yet here I am… with a husband, eight kids, and a job that provides income my family depends upon.
I happen to be one of the lucky ones. I have a supportive husband, I enjoy what I do, and I am able to work almost exclusively from home. But still my work costs me something. It costs my family something, too.
Dinner might be more homemade, the refrigerator might be clean, and the laundry might be caught up this afternoon if I didn’t have phone calls to make and a deadline to meet. At the end of most days, I do come up short on time somewhere – for sleep, for exercise, for answering emails. I make family my first priority, and I aim to make sure it’s never my kids or my husband who get the short end of that stick, but I would be lying if I said they never did.
Pretending that being a working mother doesn’t come with some level of compromise isn’t fair – not to our families who pay part of the price, and certainly not to other women who might then enter family life or working life with unrealistic expectations.
Just like every family, there are compromises we have been willing to make. A spotless refrigerator might be good for my family, but a paid gas bill and health insurance are good for them, too.
Whether we moms leave our homes every morning to earn a paycheck, stay home full time, or attempt some creative combination of the two, it’s most important that we make working decisions with our eyes wide open about what they will cost us.
No one can have it all. We need to figure out what we really want.
Not too long ago, one of my sisters, an at-home mom, wrote me a quick note: “It’s all well and good to be a stay at home mom and find fulfillment and happiness right here at home, but it feels good to see a mom out there in a business environment telling it like it is and keeping up with the best of them. Congratulations.”
Meanwhile, as I watch her family thrive and grow, I say, “It’s all well and good to find happiness in a combination of work and home life, but it feels good to see a devoted mom in a home environment raising beautiful children who are true lights and gifts to the world. Congratulations.”
There are no Mommy Wars. We’re in this together. With God’s grace, the best moms – at home, at work, and all the places in between – will win.
This is an old column of mine that originally appeared at Inside Catholic.